Saturday, August 30, 2014

Problems at the Plate

Progressive Presbyterian minister and Facebook friend, John Shuck, recently shared this blog post link: Why More New Members Won't Fix Church Budgets. His introductory comment was, "One of the issues that keeps clergy up at night." It's no secret that church and denominational budgets are tight and have been for quite awhile. And while the 2008 recession and continuing economic sluggishness haven't helped, church financial problems go beyond economic cycles.

The blogger writes from a somewhat conservative Protestant perspective and doesn't say anything especially new or profound. Her concerns are legitimate, however. It is indeed becoming questionable whether "congregations as we know them [are] financially sustainable" and for many of the reasons she cites. Here is my perspective which differs somewhat from hers.

Denominational finances have been under stress for decades, primarily due to shrinking congregational memberships. Another factor is that congregations are keeping more of their money at home. Some of this is due to distrust and/or disinterest in denominational programs, but the larger factor is simply that parish ministry costs have risen faster than their income. The cost of clergy salaries and benefits especially have become difficult to support.

As a result, most denominations have gone through major restructuring and downsizing after multiple rounds of painful budget cuts. It seems that things have stabilized but I suspect this is a calm before the next storm. As this blogger says, and most church people know, congregational memberships have aged considerably. Ironically this has actually been a short-term financial blessing.

Retiring Baby Boomers now dominate most congregations and they are relatively well-off, even in retirement. They are now the primary source of many congregations' volunteer time and budget support. But their commitment is not the same as their "greatest generation" parents; they like their toys and vacations. A continuing sluggish economy is also putting new demands on their resources, including helping out their children and grandchildren. Still, they will support congregational ministries for some time, including perhaps with generous bequests at the end.

Yet, as this blogger indicates, even Baby Boomer time and money aren't enough to keep churches afloat in their current form. There are simply too many buildings and staff to be sustainable. As one of the comments says, the church is over-franchised. In addition, it's true that the under-65 population is more discriminating in its support than previous generations. They do tend to support causes over institutions. Church loyalty is getting weaker all the time. Churches treading water are actually going to sink pretty quickly as active and engaged members get frustrated and leave for other places (not necessarily other churches) and remaining members are unable to provide the necessary organizational time and money. It's become common to hear members of struggling congregations refer to themselves as "too few, too old, and too tired."

The blog post and some of the responses make a few proposals for righting the ship. While possibly helpful they all accept that the church's future will be about (as one ELCA denominational official said a few years ago) "doing less with less." This path may lead to churches achieving a new equilibrium but I suspect it will be at a level far lower than many expect.

Ultimately, the church's problem is not finances. Lack of money is a symptom of a much larger issue, namely the church's declining importance in people's lives and in the culture generally. This trend actually has been underway for a long time, since the Enlightenment at least. Until now the church has been able to hide itself from this reality but it's becoming harder to do, though this blog post basically is an attempt to do just that. Ultimately the only answer is a dramatic transformation of the church into something genuinely new, which most current church leaders and members likely won't recognize.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

In Search of a Cosmic Christianity

“What’s wrong with these people?”  It’s a common reaction to a range of people we might call “The Deniers.” Currently the group most discussed is the climate change deniers. Yet there are a number of other examples of people rejecting assertions widely accepted by the scientific community. Those asserting a causal connection between childhood vaccinations and autism deny the overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety of such treatments.

One group that has long been involved in scientific denial is conservative Christians. The recent history of science TV series Cosmos both highlighted past instances of rejecting science (including, of course, Galileo and Darwin) and stirred up its own share of hostility from religious groups. Astronomer host Neil deGrasse Tyson asserted without hesitation or qualification numerous scientific facts questioned or rejected by those believing they contradicted religious teachings.

The acceptance of modern science is often pointed to as one of the differences between Christian fundamentalists and Christian moderates and liberals. Most members of mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopal, Presbyterian, UCC, ELCA Lutheran, etc.) will say they hold a scientific worldview, even when it contradicts stories and assertions found in the ancient writings of the Bible. In doing so, there is often a smug sense of superiority, or at least sophistication, projected by liberal Christians in relation to their fundamentalist cousins. The Christianity of these moderate denominations, they believe, is modern and adjusts with the times while conservatives are stuck in the past and, frankly, not very bright.

In reality, however, liberal Christians rarely look very closely at the relationship between the contemporary scientific world view and Christianity’s basic tenets. Beyond recognizing the obvious instances of ancient biblical ignorance and superstition, the real implications of contemporary science’s “Cosmos” have little impact on even the most liberal churches’ preaching or teaching. Even if such topics were discussed in seminary, formally or informally, most pastors will continue to assert basic Christian beliefs with little if any modification.

The reason for this caution is because science challenges far more than individual passages from the Bible. In reality all the fundamental teachings of Christianity presume an ancient pre-scientific worldview. Most liberal clergy and many lay people know this at some level but just don’t want to go there. They fear that if they pull on this thread the whole sweater will unravel, so better to just leave it alone. Trying to fit God, the Trinity, heaven, hell, sin and salvation, eternal life, and a resurrected Jesus into Neil deGrasse Tyson’s cosmos can be a quick path to a throbbing headache.

If confronted with this, many clergy will speadily backpedal and talk of the Bible and Christian fundamentals in terms of symbol, narrative, metaphor, and mythology. In other words, yes we know all this but (wink wink) we have to keep up appearances, keep telling “the old, old story,” so that the folks who still want it all to be “true” won’t get upset. Catering to this aging and shrinking group can only be a formula for irrelevance and decline, which of course has been the experience of all these denominations for over a generation.

Mainline churches are attempting an impossible balancing act. Reasonably and appropriately, they want to be taken seriously and speak with authority on complex modern problems impacting society at all levels. They want to positively impact people’s individual lives and the communities in which they live. At its best, it is religion's purpose. 

At the same time, however, even liberal Christianity exists in a murky world of ancient images and ideas that simply can’t be reconciled with the ever clearer cosmos of modern science. Fundamentalists are dismissed as irrational for denying climate change and evolution, or reading global events as signs of a coming divine apocalypse. Yet with little if any qualification, liberal Christians continue to seek divine intervention through prayer, assert the centrality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and promise believers an after-death existence in a place called Heaven. How any of this fits with the world taught at even a high school level of science is not explained or discussed.

Fundamentalist literalism is rejected as simple minded while the scientifically indefensible beliefs and practices of Liberal Christians are defended as mysteries of faith. It's hardly a surprise that educated people around the world, especially the growing number with little or no church background, find traditional Christianity in any form hard to take seriously. In reality Christianity across the theological spectrum exists in a schizophrenic bubble trying to reconcile the Middle Ages with Modernity. Which world are we in? We can’t have it both ways.

It won’t be long before the commemorations and conferences begin observing the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. With much of Christianity in the industrial world at least on the ropes, there undoubtedly will be many calls for a new reformation. And they will be right, but probably not for the right reasons. English theologian Don Cupitt has said that what is needed is not, as in 1517, a reformation of the institutional church but a reformation of Christianity itself. Fundamentalists will condemn such a project as rank heresy.  Many liberal Christians also will fear it as an act of betrayal of history and tradition. Yet ironically, two centuries of historical biblical and theological study are making the strong case that the early “church fathers” got both Jesus and his mission badly wrong. The world here and now was his real concern, not personal salvation in some hypothetical world to come. Orthodox Christianity and the church supporting it, this scholarship says, have been on an over fifteen hundred year digression from what Jesus had intended. Oops.

We can’t know what the result of such a reformation would look like. It would be progress, however, if we start publicly discussing the questions we know many people, in and out of the pews, are already asking. Clergy, especially, need to stop being afraid of acknowledging the limits of traditional Christian teaching and the difficulty of reconciling many Christian concepts with our modern understanding of the world. We at least need to start the conversation and create a safe place for it. As happens often in the Bible, we need to become people on a journey, traveling in faith without a clear destination.

It’s common knowledge that Christendom has come to an end. What also needs to be recognized is that, not only have its social and political walls fallen, but its theological foundations have also crumbled away. For this world and its critical needs, it’s time for a new—perhaps radically new—beginning. From what we now know about Jesus, it’s seems pretty likely he would approve.